Last Wednesday, the U.S. Capitol building was overrun by insurrectionists at the moment when members of Congress were certifying the results of a national election. Reading accounts of how close the mob came to where those representatives had sheltered, I believe the legislative branch came closer to falling than many people realize. This event was unprecedented, and its consequences will be playing out for a long time.
U.S. democracy has taken a lot of damage in recent years. Citizens have become polarized. Some politicians have become brazen in their disregard for facts. Voters have been suppressed. The press has been vilified and attacked. Similar things have happened in other countries, and formerly healthy democracies have fallen into populism, authoritarianism, or totalitarianism.
I hope this latest challenge will inspire a renewal of democracy. Organizations that are tested — and that survive the test — end up stronger.
Democracy stands on several pillars, among them:
- Citizens who are informed by truthful perspectives supported by a free press and scientific enquiry
- Institutions that create and enforce laws to make sure that society operates according to rules
- Free and fair elections in which each individual has a vote that counts
The AI community can help strengthen all three.
- As ambiguous information surfaces and is tossed into the grinder of social media, recommendation engines can drive polarization. How can we build recommenders that bring people together rather than driving them apart?
- Decisions to ban polarizing entities — including President Trump — from tech platforms have appeared to be made ad hoc. Instead, they need to be based on rules that are fair and consistently applied. If companies and regulators can develop such rules — which will not be easy — AI can play a significant role in implementing them at scale.
- Digital tools have been used to selectively discourage voting and to gerrymander. On the positive side, they’ve also been used to inform voters and drive turnout. We need to develop new categories of tools and muster the political will to use them o empower all voters.
January 6, 2021, was a nadir for the U.S., and the path ahead will be long and hard. But I believe the country has reached a turning point. I hope the dire events of the past week will renew our appreciation of just how precious sound government is.